Inside the gay baby boom

The author of a new memoir talks about the odd dynamics of lesbian motherhood and how it's changing our culture

Published May 18, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

America's got a bad case of gayby fever. In the past few years, we've been subjected to countless trend pieces about the growth of gay parenting and its remaking of the American family. Censuses have shown a dramatic increase in the number of gays and lesbians living with children, and, most recently, high-profile gay celebrities, like Ricky Martin and Clay Aiken, have adopted children of their own. Of course, gay parents have been around as long as there have been gay people, but their recent prominence (see: the upcoming "The Kids Are All Right," the "gayby" neologism, "Modern Family") suggests that a new cultural moment is afoot.

Amie Klempnauer Miller's delightful new memoir, "She Looks Just Like You," offers an engrossing, funny and eminently readable new take on the subject of gay parenthood. The book tells the story of how Miller and her long-term partner, Jane, came to the decision to become pregnant (having the "lesbian love of process" they went on a retreat to discuss the subject), their failed attempts at insemination (after Amie proved unable to get pregnant, Jane carried the child) and the stress of their daughter's early years. Along the way Miller plumbs the meaning of her strange new identity -- non-biological lesbian mother -- and the ways it challenges our conventional ideas about motherhood, fatherhood and the American family.

Salon spoke to Miller over the phone about "The Kids Are All Right," reasons behind the gayby boom and why we're so afraid of gay dads.

In the book you say that "unconventional parents" are becoming more common in America. What do you mean by that?

I was referring to the growing number of lesbian and gay parents. Non-biological lesbian moms, like gay fathers who use surrogates, we're in this weird zone between motherhood and fatherhood.

How is that?

I had tried to get pregnant, but, in the end, it was my partner who carried the baby, and I found myself going, "Wow, so what's my role here?" I was planning on taking maternity leave, but I wasn't pregnant. I was there for the conception, and I was there for the ultrasound but I wasn't going to get to do these things, like childbirth, that are so paradigmatic of what it means to be a mother.

The parents I ended up relating to the most were stay-at-home dads because they are bending the genre categories themselves. It's interesting that some of the criticisms that have been made toward stay-at-home dads are not that different from the criticisms of gay and lesbian families. Is it natural? Will the kids turn out OK?

It seems like gay parenthood has suddenly become very visible in popular culture. What's behind this gayby boom?

There has been a rise of the celebrity gayby, but it's really about more gay men and lesbians having children and becoming more visible. My sense is that it's because the first generation of children of gay and lesbian parents have come into their mid-20s. It's no longer that bizarre to know somebody who has gay and lesbian parents, or a gay and lesbian person with a child. And the numbers are going up. According to the census there are about 270,000 kids with gay and lesbian parents, but every census the numbers jump up. And as the numbers increase, so does the visibility.

More broadly, medical technology has become much more available and much more available to single women. Back in the day you had to have your husband approve it. In the past 25-30 years, there's also been a lot research done on the outcomes for children of gay and lesbian parents. Most of that has focused on kids of lesbians, and the research has shown that the kids are turning out fine.

Straight parents don't have the problem with terminology that gay parents have. What did you end up calling yourselves?

Jane is "mommy." I'm "mama." I like "mama" in particular because I never used it for my own mother, and it's recognized by the outside world as a real word for mother. Hannah discovered when she was about 4 or 5 that other people are still very confused by this, so to people in the outside world she'll often refer to us as Amy and Jane. I'd been warned by other people, "What are you going to call yourselves?" "It's so confusing, you'd better not have a kid!" It's funny how when we have names for something, it becomes more real.

For a long time, gay culture was defined by the fact that, since so many of us were rejected by our biological parents, we created these non-traditional families for ourselves. The gay parenting boom seems like a move back from this idea of a gay community toward a very traditional idea of family.

In some ways it probably is. I think fundamentally the big change that's been happening is that gay and lesbian people are seeing the full range of choices open to them. Not that long ago, we would have assumed we couldn't get married or assumed we couldn't have a lasting relationship or we couldn't have children. People are now not making those assumptions at all.

A lot of people have this expectation that gay parents would pressure their kid to be gay. To be completely honest, if I had a daughter at this point, part of me would wish that she'd end up being gay.

I don't think we've in any way tried to form Hannah into a budding heterosexual or a budding homosexual. But I think our goal has really been to help her understand at this point -- she's just 7 -- that there are lot of different kinds of families. There are people who have two moms, and families that have two dads, and families with one mom and one dad. She knows kids who have been adopted by a single mom. There's a whole gamut, and she can see these things as a part of daily life.

As the non-biological mother you had to go through a complicated legal process to adopt Hannah. What was that like?

The legal process is all based on where you live. There are a minority of states that will say statewide that same-sex parents can do a second-parent adoption. Even in Minnesota we don't have it statewide -- it's county by county, and then it's judge by judge. Before Hannah was born we met with a lawyer and had affidavits drawn up, saying we our parents support my adopting Hannah. We had to prove that there's not a father out there that's going to make a claim on her. We asked the court to waive the requirement that Jane would terminate her parental rights.

But some courts will require a home study [where your home is evaluated by a social worker]. In places where you can't have a second-parent adoption, the parent and child are very vulnerable. You can't carry unrelated children on your insurance; inheritance-wise, they don't have claims on your estate; you don't have the legal authority to make medical decisions, and if there's a breakup or death, you don't have custody rights. There are 16 states now that say, statewide, you can have a second parent adoption. There are a few states like Minnesota where some counties approve it and some do not, and then there are lots of states where you can't do it at all.

In the last few years there's been an awful lot of attention paid to gay marriage, but not much talk about gay parenting rights. Does that bother you?

In some respects they're tied together. The ideal situation would be for the laws to protect gay and lesbian couples with children in the same way they protect heterosexual couples and heterosexual couples with children. If you rely only on marriage extending the rights, there are always going to be some people who have families but for whatever set of reasons don't fit into the marriage paradigm. The best situation would be for the laws to be set up so the parents and the kids would be protected -- and be able to provide medical care for each other -- whether they're married or not.

This summer's "The Kids Are All Right," which stars Julianne Moore and Annette Bening as a lesbian couple, has a good chance of being the first big movie about gay parenting to be a mainstream hit. Do you think the idea of lesbian parents is still more culturally acceptable than the idea of two gay men raising a child?

I think it's important to say that 20 percent of gay male couples now have at least one kid. That's huge and a pretty recent phenomenon, but I think there is more openness toward lesbian parents. I think it mirrors the cultural feelings about mothers and fathers. There's a kind of old-fashioned sense that women are just more inclined toward being able to have and raise children than are men. I've certainly encountered hetero women saying it would be so great to have two mothers because they think we keep the house so much cleaner.

There's also a history of gay men being more sexualized. There's this idea that if two gay men have a child there must be something sordid going on, which is obviously not the case.

Has your daughter, Hannah, encountered any teasing at school?

She's gotten some stuff from another kid in kindergarten who was like, "That's so weird," but she's not the only one with a nontraditional family. She goes to school with kids who live with guardians or were adopted by a single mom. At this point, the fact that there are so many different kinds of families helps us be just one of them.

By Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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